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I Was A Child Sponsorship Skeptic

Skeptic magazine is a publication by an organization called “The Skeptics Society.” The stories ask big questions about belief and about science. Are there aliens out there? Is climate change real? Did Jesus actually exist?
 
When I was in college, I was skeptical about a lot of things. I asked a lot of questions. As a student studying poverty alleviation, I learned best practices of development. I read all about how economic, political, social, and religious systems work together to create and continue poverty. I learned to critique the approach that many Americans have taken to “helping” people who are materially poor.
 
And I was a huge child sponsorship skeptic.
 
The cynical view of child sponsorship is that it’s little more than a funding mechanism. It’s a way for organizations to convince donors to give. To make sponsors feel good about themselves through a connection with an individual child. And most of the time, only helping individuals doesn’t work. Poverty isn’t just an individual issue. It’s the result of systems that do not work, are not just, and that do not support life and flourishing.
 
That’s not a reflection on the work of an organization like Food for the Hungry (FH). FH uses sponsorship to fund community-based work that helps everyone in that area. FH walks alongside whole communities and families in those communities. This helps ensure that FH’s work to end poverty does address systems and institutions, not just individual problems.
 
Yet like I said, I was a sponsorship skeptic.
 
I wished for a different funding model that involved more education for donors. Let’s share about the places where FH does such life-changing work. We should talk about farmers improving agricultural productivity through sustainable farming techniques! I want to tell you about changes in worldview that lead to mothers believing that they can care for their babies. Don’t you want to hear how health and hygiene training changes behaviors that cultures have practiced for generations?

Then came a challenge.

I read a report by an economics professor named Bruce Wydick. He wrote a paper asking “Does International Child Sponsorship Work?” based on a study of another child sponsorship organization using data from six countries: Bolivia, Guatemala, Kenya, India, Uganda, and the Philippines.
 
Wydick begins by acknowledging the facts: over 9 million children are supported through international sponsorship organizations. But is it an effective way to impact a child’s life for the long-term?
 
One important caveat is that Wydick studied the results of work by one organization. Those results do not necessarily apply to all countries or all organizations. Yet what he found about child sponsorship in those cases was shocking to me.
 
To my great surprise (remember, this is a former skeptic speaking), Wydick and his co-researchers found that being sponsored has large impacts on a child’s life.

Differences between a sponsored child and an unsponsored child.

  1. Sponsored children stayed in school longer and were more likely to complete primary, secondary, and tertiary education.
  2. Adults sponsored as children were more likely to find jobs.
  3. The jobs they took were better quality.
  4. Sponsorship seems to have the biggest impact on the most disadvantaged children. In places where boys tend to reach a higher level of education, sponsorship had the biggest impact on girls.
  5. Sponsorship may be an “equalizer.” It helps raise countries with lower educational outcomes to levels similar to countries with better educational outcomes.
And the biggest surprise? These differences seem to largely be due to increases in “aspiration”–or hope.

Sponsorship Gives Children Hope

Now, you can’t necessarily apply this to all sponsorship programs. Food for the Hungry’s sponsorship does look different than the programs of other organizations. Yet the claim that sponsorship effectively increases sponsored child aspirations — HOPE — does seem to be supported by early research from within Food for the Hungry. And the stories that come in from the field seem to suggest the same.

Why Hope?

Economics is beginning to consider how self-esteem, aspiration, and role models may have a significant influence on financial decisions, health, use of technology, and education. One hypothesis for why sponsorship can make such a difference in the adult life of a sponsored child is that it not only alleviates pressures (like not being able to afford the cost of school tuition), but it enables mentorship, writing and receiving loving letters with a sponsoring family, and the development of children as good leaders, workers, citizens, and parents. And children gain a vision for the future.

Sponsorship: A Tool for Transformation

Then this data plus incredible stories of life change convinced me. I was a total child sponsorship skeptic. Now I believe that sponsorship might be more than just a funding method. I think that because it can be a tool of transformation for both the child and the sponsor.